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Last Updated: Thursday, 20 November, 2003, 15:53 GMT
Women on the rise in Indian elections

By Jyotsna Singh
BBC correspondent in Delhi

High-profile women candidates are fighting pitched battles in at least three of the four Indian states voting in key elections next month.

Vasundhara Raje Scindia
Vasundhara Raje is one of the most colourful candidates
Sheila Dikshit of the Congress party and Uma Bharati and Vasundhara Raje from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are all being seen as strong contenders for the chief ministers' position.

In Delhi, Sheila Dikshit is seeking a second term in office.

The 65-year-old leader was considered a political lightweight when she first took the Delhi chief minister's office in 1998.

Ms Dikshit seems to have come a long way since then.

Her party's campaign this time revolves around her personality and her government's achievements.

She is directly credited with providing better roads, cleaner air and more electricity in the water and power-starved Indian capital.

Family background

Ms Dikshit is challenged by the BJP's Poonam Azad, a young and glamorous housewife of a former Indian cricketer.

Ms Azad denies that her family background has helped her win the nomination.

"It is an open field. It is your good traditional Indian upbringing that makes you suitable for any particular job rather than your family connections," Ms Azad told BBC News Online.

WOMEN AT THE HUSTINGS
Delhi has 77 women candidates
Congress party has fielded 40 women candidates in Madhya Pradesh
Total number of women candidates less than 10% of total contestants
The BJP's chief ministerial candidate in the politically influential state of Madhya Pradesh is Uma Bharati.

Ms Bharati represents the hardline face of the BJP and follows a strident Hindu nationalist ideology.

Dressed in saffron, Uma Bharati is a sanyasin - someone who has taken the pledge to remain unmarried and vegetarian and wear saffron clothes.

With her fiery speeches attacking Congress leader Sonia Gandhi's Christian origins and the Congress chief minister's "misrule" she is able to strike a chord among rural women voters.

Colourful personality

Vasundhara Raje, a former federal minister, is one of the most colourful personalities in the fray for the chief minister's job in Rajasthan.

There may be fewer women contesting than desirable for gender equity, but the variety of talent and background that these women represent is interesting
Rita Chohan, voter
Daughter of the royal Scindia family from Madhya Pradesh, Ms Raje says being a woman leader in feudal Rajasthan need not be a disadvantage.

She says she got 58% of the women's vote in the last by-elections in Rajasthan.

"It cuts both ways. Women can show their affection and they understand the psychology of those who are in need better,'' said Ms Raje.

Sheila Dikshit is seeking a second term as Delhi chief minister

Despite the presence of these formidable women leaders, the number of women candidates remains low - less than 10% of the total contestants.

The two main national parties, the BJP and the Congress, have always advocated strong support for reserving a third of seats for women in national and state parliaments.

But their choice of candidates has not reflected this desire.

"We want to field more women candidates but there are few candidates", BJP president Venkaiah Naidu said.

Political parties say fewer women candidates are put up because they do not win elections often.

But a recent study conducted by the Delhi-based Centre for Social Research has dismissed this as a myth.

The study, based on an analysis of the last five general elections since 1972, showed the winning percentage of women candidates to be much higher than their male counterparts.

'No political will'

Women's groups allege political parties pay only lip service to empowering women.

"There is clearly no political will to share power with women" says Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research.

But it is not all bad news for Indian women in these state elections.

There are 77 women candidates in Delhi this time, up from 58 in the last elections.

At least 12 of them have been nominated by the Congress party, while BJP has chosen seven candidates for the 70-member Delhi state assembly.

In Madhya Pradesh, the Congress has fielded nearly 40 women candidates.

Analysts say a slow but definite change is emerging in people's perception of women politicians.

A Delhi voter echoes similar views.

"There may be fewer women contesting than desirable for gender equity, but the variety of talent and background that these women represent is interesting," says Rita Chohan, a student.

"It is no more just wives or daughters of politicians as we have seen in the past. There are grassroots level politicians and glamorous young student politicians. That's what counts more than the numbers".




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